“Ready for walkies?”
If you have a dog, you probably say something of this sort every single day. Hopefully more than once. It’s an auditory litany that mustn’t be missed, even though as a writer, you’ve probably learned that unintentional repetition isn’t a great thing. If you skip it, you’re likely to end up with a miserable pet and a messy house (okay, one that’s even messier than usual). You’ll miss out on one of the most fruitful sources of inspiration known to humankind, and a surefire solution to Writer’s Block. This holds true even if you don’t have a dog, though of course a canine companion provides the best excuse for getting outside whether you feel like it or not.
An addiction to walks is why my dog and I traipse through the hills each morning. We put aside chores, snacks, conversations, and actual writing in favor of retreating to the forested hills out our back door. No matter whether it’s hot and smoky from forest fires, gray and rainy and inches deep in mud, or icy and blizzarding and ten degrees F, we suit up and begin a brisk walk up a bumpy trail. To the uninitiated, this trip might sound mundane or downright unpleasant. But to my dog and me, it’s an entry into our own fantastic Land of Oz.
Huh? you might wonder. How could a trudge along a dirt trail remotely resemble the fantasy world in one of the most classic of childrens’ books?
Easy. You know that trail my dog Tock and I follow? Don’t be fooled by the ice, dirt, rocks, roots, hounds-tongue burrs, and knapweed. Nope. It’s actually the yellow brick road. Not only does it lead us to our goal—a high point with a view—but we always, always get more than we bargained for. In a good way. Mostly. Here’s what happens:
- We get to hunt down wicked witches (Tock’s translation: pine cones or snowballs, depending on season. In desperate situations, a stick will suffice.)
- We make every effort to scare off the flying monkeys (Tock’s translation: squirrels).Photo credit: Andrey Svistunov
- We make some friends (Tock’s translation: other dogs) if we’re lucky.
- We go on an interesting adventure in which our hearts pump furiously.
And then? Like Dorothy and Toto, we go home.
Okay, fine, you say. Land of Oz. Cute analogy. But what does it have to do with me writing a single word of my recalcitrant Work-in-Progress?
Glad you asked. In fact, the great outdoors is one of the most perfect places to think about and talk about writing. First of all, we—meaning everyone, not just writers—live in our own stories all the time. Stories that we create every day. They might be wholly true, they might be wholly fictional, or they might be somewhere in between. They’re our own personal narratives, about ourselves, people we know, things that’ve happened to us, or things in news.
Now if you’re a writer, or want to be a writer, you spend even more time in your head sifting through those stories, and other people’s stories, and your thoughts, feelings, and reactions to all those stories to find the ones that you want to write down.
Sometimes, this is pretty overwhelming. You get stuck. You can’t dig through the mess deep enough to find a fresh new idea. Or you have so many ideas that you can’t decide which one to work on. Or you can’t solve a problem in your plot, or your characters, or your world. You might feel like the solution is off in the wings, in your peripheral vision where you just can’t quite grasp it. It darts away when you try to look at it because there’s simply too much stuff going on in your head. Too many thoughts and stories distracting you.
So what can you do? Simple. Get away from your screens! Put yourself in a situation where your subconscious mind can take over. Engage your entire body (your physical self) to the best of your ability, so much that you can damp out all the clutter. Get your heart pounding, your lungs acting like bellows, your muscles working, your sweat glands pumping. Get some fresh air! (Hopefully fresh, depending where you live.)
And the beauty of this is that you can do all of it by going for a walk! As you probably know, exercise has major physical health benefits for your heart, muscles, bones, and immune system. All those endorphins released by exercise lead to higher levels of happiness and relaxation. Even better, regular aerobic exercise benefits your brain! It increases the size of your hippocampus (the part of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning) and promotes neurogenesis—the growth of nervous tissue. You can become more resistant to neurodegenerative disease.
From a writing standpoint, here’s the most important thing: moderate aerobic exercise such as walking can provide you with your best ideas. You get to live entirely in the present, experiencing the real world—the one that’s happening right this second. Because you’re devoting all your energy to your physical self, your brain simply doesn’t have energy to keep up with the many story threads whirling around inside it. It relaxes and lets go, unmooring you from preconceived notions, assumptions, and worries. You find yourself able to see details and the big picture at the same time. And that’s when the ideas happen.
I’m speaking from experience here. Unless it’s deathly cold (below ten degrees F is the cutoff for my dog’s paws) or I’m deathly ill, I walk every day. After a few throws of a pinecone for my dog, ideas, memories, and solutions to tricky plot problems begin to pop into my head without any effort on my part. By my side, Tock chases, fetches, sniffs, and runs, thoroughly enjoying every second.
All you have to do to immerse yourself in your own Land of Oz adventure is to turn your phone off and your body on. Take your dog, if you have one and it’s willing. A walk in the woods is a truly magical place to most dogs. Unless they’re very nervous (in which case you’ll need to start much closer to home), they carry with them a sense of wonder, excitement and joy, as well as total immersion in the present. These feelings will spill over into you, too, no matter how down or worried you were before you went out the door.
This may sound strange, but I truly believe our dogs have a lot to teach us about writing. Twice per month, I’m gonna translate the basic precepts of dog minds, dog ownership, and dog training into simple writing tips. So if you love animals, if you love the outdoors, or if you love writing about these things, I invite you to join me here.
And now, from one writer to another, I urge you to get out there in the Land of Oz. I’ll be looking for you on the Yellow Brick Road.